BlogHer 2014 :: The View From Here

I would say I had no idea what to expect, but I did have expectations. I expected to be overwhelmed. To feel severely behind. To come away feeling like an isolated techno-idiot amidst a group of profoundly connected and accomplished women. I expected that I wouldn’t fit in. But when I signed up for BlogHer ’14, I decided to set all that aside and just show up. And that, I figured, would probably teach me something about myself.

It did.

For starters, the conference wasn’t that overwhelming. I guess you have to know how to tune things out and disappear when it all gets to be too much. I’m not a dutiful conference goer. I show up late. I leave early. I wander. When I was younger, I’d approach a conference setting with a dogged determination to get every last drop of benefit out of it. But now, I think the benefit is in knowing that quite often it’s not the framework or the agenda of the event that changes us. It’s the experience. It’s the little transcendent moments where we hear one thing or meet one person who flips a switch of self-awareness. And I’ve found that those encounters usually find me (rather than the other way around.)

My first BlogHer experience began with attending the Eppa Sangria Sundown Soiree (though the sun definitely was well above the horizon.) Think urban courtyard. Think a few scattered tables and a lovely snack spread prepared by Whole Foods. Think scores of women milling around, chatting it up, sipping sangria out of plastic stemless wine glasses. I witnessed several face-to-face introductions between women who’d been reading each other’s blogs but had never met in person. I chatted with one of the event’s sponsors, Jenny On The Spot, a beautiful thirtysomething mom of three who was named one of Babble’s top mom bloggers for 2012. She was very sweet, hip, and candid; it’s easy to see why she has more than 11,000 Twitter followers.

She’s the soccer mom’s Pioneer Woman, the best girlfriend you always wanted.

And she writes sponsored content for various companies.

Wait… what?

What does that even mean? She works products into her blog posts. Businesses pay her to blog about their products. Now, Jenny On The Spot would probably be the first to tell you that she only blogs about products she believes in. And if she did, I'd probably believe her. (But just so you know, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose when they're writing for hire.)

And while that’s not the entirety of what Jenny does, our conversation opened my eyes to one whole segment of the blogosphere that I didn’t know existed: Big companies have started leveraging the vast audiences of mommy bloggers by paying them to say good things about their products.

Yes, I’d heard about monetizing blogs, but I thought that was just letting advertisers have space around your content, a marketing framework that paid the bills while you wrote about your passions. And that does exist, by the way. But advertisers have really upped their game. Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered food, was at this conference, building relationships with potential ambassadors—bloggers who could help soften their image. McDonalds threw the closing bash, which was headlined by Run DMC’s front man, Rev. Run. There were scores of companies at the trade show, many of which openly recruited for “partners.” One rep told me I’d be compensated on a per-click basis: they’d pay me for every hit their website got that originated on mine.

Cuisinart was there, as were Eggland’s Best (yep, eggs!), SC Johnson Cleaning Products (scrubbing bubbles, anyone?), Glade, Angel Soft Toilet Paper and Ziploc.

But monetizing bloggers weren’t the only contingents at this conference. There were also a lot of women there who blog as a means of activism. I listened to Libby Kranz read at an open mic about her daughter’s death from a rare form of pediatric cancer earlier this year. Her blog, Unravel Pediatric Cancer, not only sounds a cry for more funding and research, but also serves as a source of education and comfort for those impacted by the illness.

And keynote speaker Shannon Des Roches Rosa, a leading autism activist, uses her blog to educate and encourage others. It was heartening to see how women have gathered in cyberspace to effect change in the world and support each other through challenging life experiences.

The trade show was a trip. I won a $60 gift card to Game Stop and a $20 gift card to Chuck E. Cheese on the Chuck E. Cheese Wheel of Fortune, but a few lucky folks landed on the iPad Mini and the X Box spaces. Skype was giving away a plethora of swag, everything from mobile battery chargers to windbreaker hoodies to super cool drink containers. As attendees walked through rows and rows of sponsors, they could do shots (yes, the alcoholic kind), eat Baskin Robbins ice cream, get a chair massage, or stand in line to see Khloe Kardashian (I passed on that one, though when I accidentally stepped on the carpet of her booth, her bouncer quickly told me to go to the back of the line.)

There was even a magic mirror, sponsored by The Mrs., a pop band comprised of thirty- and fortysomething Barbies (and I’m not just trashing them. They were gorgeous and perfect.) I took my turn standing in front of the mirror while it told me how beautiful and wonderful I am. It made me very uncomfortable, which was (I think) the point.

There were some fabulous keynote speakers. Danah Boyd talked about the horror of having an audience critique and make fun of her via a Twitter feed that was projected behind her while speaking at the Web 2.0 Conference.

The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, was extremely entertaining, even though she spoke candidly about her chronic anxiety, her struggle with depression and her OCD tendencies. Loved her.

I enjoyed seeing comedian Tig Notaro—though she did recycle a bit of her old material.

And I was pretty blown away by Arianna Huffington, whom I expected to be all kinds of ditzy and shallow, but instead came across as a woman of great substance. (I repent of my [mis]judgment.) When interviewer Guy Kawasaki asked her what one of the biggest keys of her success is, she said, “Sleep.” The audience laughed, and she assured them she wasn’t kidding. How does a woman build a web news dynasty with her own two hands? First and foremost, says Huffington, self-care. What a refreshing (and much needed) perspective. And she more than held her own with Kawasaki.

I met some wonderful women, many of which are close to my age. I got to spend some face-to-face time with Kim, who I started the Fifty | Fifty Vision blog with, but had only met in person once. Great conversations.

The pinnacle of the conference for me, however, was attending a workshop on publishing. Several editors talked about the book proposal and submission process. And while they talked in general terms about the ins and outs of book publishing, all I could hear was this:

Write. Write. Write. Invest in your own voice. Don’t compartmentalize your life. Believe in what you have to say. Pour it all out, wherever you are. Finish your book...quit spending yourself on the stories of others; tell your own. They’re worth telling. Stop procrastinating by chasing a vocation that is good, but not best. Quit trying to form new relationships. That, too, is a distraction. You have more than enough kids (six), grandkids (three), siblings (four), nieces and nephews (26), and a host of wonderful in-laws, cousins, friends, neighbors and colleagues. You already don’t have enough time to nurture those relationships, so why would you invest in building new ones that you’ll never be able to keep up with?

Going to BlogHer ’14 taught me a lot about the blogging world. As far as I can tell, some blog for money, some do it to rally around a common cause, and a great many do it simply to connect with like-minded folks. It’s a way for people to both hear and be heard. In the midst of our busy lives we can instantly engage, whenever it's convenient, with people whose stories intersect with our own.

Going to BlogHer also confirmed what I’d been suspecting for weeks: that this experiment with Fifty Fifty Vision was coming to a close for me. When Kim and I started that blog, we agreed to do it for a year, or until it became clear that it wasn’t working for one of us. And I’ve reached that point; I simply don’t have time to work on my book, keep up with my own blog, and help spearhead that one.

So I've come full circle, back to focusing on my own writing. Wish me luck.